Chandigarh: For many at the Nanaksar Thath Gurudwara in Karnal, the death of Sant Baba Ram Singh “with a bullet” turned the clock back to October 1982, when Baba Jang Singh, the then-head of the gurudwara was killed — “also with a bullet” — in firing by security forces near New Delhi’s Gurudwara Rakab Ganj.
Baba Ram Singh, 65, allegedly shot himself to death in a car Wednesday at the Singhu Border in support of farmers, thousands of whom have been agitating outside the national capital, demanding the repeal of the three new farm laws brought in by the Narendra Modi government in September.
While inquest proceedings have been initiated by the police in Sonepat, the district bordering Delhi where the incident took place, the police are yet to recover the firearm used.
Thirty-eight years before, Baba Jang Singh was among the four Sikh Akali activists killed while trying to reach Parliament House to demand a judicial probe into the death of 34 Sikhs in a train accident in Tarn Taran. Hundreds of Akali activists — whose leaders carried the ashes of the 34 dead Sikhs — had virtually laid siege to Delhi in 1982.
Baba Ram Singh had taken over the reins of the Nanaksar gurudwara in 1990, eight years after Jang Singh’s death, and went on to become one of its most prominent heads with a huge following in and around Karnal as well as abroad. A renowned kirtani (singer of hymns) and kathavaachak (preacher), Baba Ram Singh was a respectable, non-controversial figure.
A hand-written single-page suicide note attributed to Baba Ram Singh says he was “anguished” to see farmers protesting. “To oppress is a sin and to suffer oppression is a sin. Everyone is doing something or the other for the farmers. Some have returned their honours and awards to mark their protest. Daas (servant of God) is giving up his life — as a mark of my voice of protest against the oppression of the government and in support of the hardworking farmers,” the note states.
Mahal Singh, a close associate of Baba Ram Singh, said: “The fact that he chose to shoot himself reminded us of Baba Jang Singh ji’s death. Baba Ram Singh ji too gave up his life for a cause — the farmers’ — and his sacrifice will be remembered for centuries.”
The preacher’s funeral will be held in Karnal at noon Friday, and a large contingent of farmers and their leaders are planning to attend it.
‘He was disturbed by events’
As Baba Ram Singh was being shifted to Paras Hospital, Panipat, the agitating farmers raised slogans against the Modi government. He was declared ‘brought dead’ at Paras Hospital, after which his followers first took his body to the Nanaksar gurudwara, and then to the Civil Hospital in Karnal for the post mortem.
When the body arrived at the Nanaksar gurudwara in Karnal at around 1 am Thursday, Sant Amarjeet Singh Bhola addressed a large gathering of followers and related the sequence of events.
On 8 December, Baba Ram Singh had organised an ‘ardaas samagam’ at the gurudwara for the welfare of the agitating farmers. In his address to his followers that day, he said the ‘Raagi Singh Sahibaan of the Harmandar Sahib’ (those who perform kirtan at the Golden Temple, Amritsar) had come out in support of the farmers’ agitation, and it was his duty too to pray for their welfare.
Baba Ram Singh had first visited the Singhu border on 9 December. He sent Sant Bhola on to the stage on his behalf, and announced a monetary help of Rs 5 lakh for the farmers.
“He told me to speak to the farmers from the stage and inspire them,” Sant Bhola said in the live video relay of the address.
“We returned to the gurudwara that day, but he was disturbed. He had been following the events of the farmer’s agitation closely,” he said.
Baba Ram Singh went to the Singhu border again on 15 December, and distributed blankets. “He shared the langar at the camp of Baba Jagtar Singh, and seemed very upset about thousands of farmers sitting in the cold,” Kanwarjit Singh Virk, another close aide of Baba Ram Singh, told ThePrint.
“From the Singhu Border, he went to the Tikri border and returned to Karnal at 2.30 am. The next morning (16 December), I went to visit him, but was told that he had left for Singhu border again in the morning,” said Sant Bhola.
Virk added: “Babaji had his food in the car and told the sants with him to go on to the stage and recite the ‘Japji Sahib’ twice, and the ‘Chaupayi Sahib’ five times, while he recited the same in his car. At around 3:15 pm, when I reached his car, it was locked from the inside and we thought that he was resting. But his sevak said that there was something wrong as he noticed something on the curtains on the car windows.
“He opened the car and found him lying with a shawl and a bullet injury on his head. His finger which he probably used to pull the trigger was also injured. I have no idea how he had a weapon in the car. We rushed him to the Paras Hospital in Panipat.”
‘Weapon not recovered’
The Sonepat police are yet to recover the weapon used. “We have the car and had it searched, but there is no sign of any weapon. We are talking to the sevadars and others with him to find out more details. We have, however, recovered a diary and a pen from the car. The suicide note is a page from that diary,” Sonepat’s Senior Superintendent of Police J.S. Randhawa told ThePrint.
“There are some other pages filled in that diary, which seem to be general accounts of the gurudwara. The handwriting on the suicide note matches with the rest of the diary pages, but till we get the forensic team report on the handwriting, nothing can be said with certainty,” he said, adding that the police was in the process of getting details of the weapons licenced to the gurudwara’s address.
A BKU leader at the Singhu Border who didn’t wish to be named said Baba Ram Singh “carried his own licenced gun”.
His influence on Nanaksar community
The Nanaksar ‘samprada’ (community) is a sub-order of Sikhism which is dedicated to the bhakti (prayers) of Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikhs. While following the tenets of Sikhism, it has a strict code of conduct for its sants, and its gurudwaras are called thaths. “This means resting place,” Sant Bhola told ThePrint.
Baba Ram Singh’s father, a retired Army man from village Kotla Shahian in Batala near Gurdaspur, followed the Nanaksar tradition, and put his son in the service of the Nanaksar Thath gurudwara at Kalera, Jagraon.
“He was only five years old then. He stayed there for 30 years, learnt the tabla, kirtan and gurbaani,” said Mahal Singh.
However, following a split in the Nanaksar leadership and a protracted court battle for headship, Baba Ram Singh shifted to Haryana.
Mahal Singh said: “In Karnal, he took the Nanaksar samprada to new heights. He travelled widely across the world and had a big following. He has one brother and two sisters. Since he was committed to the Nanaksar samprada, he did not marry and lived a life completely detached from the world, dedicated to the seva of Guru Nanak Dev ji. He lived simply.”
Baba Ram Singh was also instrumental in starting the construction of a gurudwara in UP’s Ayodhya. “There is a sthaan (place) of the ninth and tenth gurus there, and Baba Ram Singh ji started the kar seva and appointed the jathedars. Another gurudwara has been built by him at Ulhasnagar in Maharashtra,” added Sant Bhola.
Some of his followers and admirers at the Singhu border spoke about his impact on the community.
“He was one of the most loved preachers in Haryana. He had great influence as a preacher,” said Sukhwinder Singh from Chandigarh, one of the sevadars clearing the garbage at the Delhi-Haryana border.
Jathinder Singh, who hails from Karnal, added: “I have known him since I was a child. He had been coming here from Karnal, but he would always return at night.”
Suicide or ‘sacrifice’?
BJP national spokesperson and Sikh leader R.P. Singh, while condoling the death of Baba Ram Singh, tweeted that the “extreme step” was “not as per tenets of Sikhism”.
I am deeply shaken & in grief by the extreme step taken by Baba Ram Singh ji
This is not as per tenets of Sikhism.
May Waheguru give him space within his fold
I also request #Farmers to please stay calm & not let miscreants take advantage of the situation https://t.co/iIB8GYGcDy
— R.P. Singh: ਆਰ ਪੀ ਸਿੰਘ National Spokesperson BJP (@rpsinghkhalsa) December 16, 2020
Other political leaders from the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Congress, have termed his death as “shahadat” (sacrifice).
While suicide is frowned upon in Sikhism, preachers and sevadars ThePrint spoke to at Singhu border said Baba Ram Singh’s death should not be considered suicide.
“Everyone is saying that he did khudkushi. But that’s wrong. In Sikhism, khudkushi is looked down upon because it means you’re killing yourself for your own happiness. But Baba Ram Singh was pained by the plight of the farmers. He saw people returning awards. But he didn’t have anything, so he sacrificed his body. This is not khudkushi but sacrifice,” said sevadar Sukhwinder Singh.
Protesters at the Singhu border are highlighting the preacher’s death to further question the government.
“How many more sacrifices will it take for the government’s conscience to awaken? Our farmers are dying; now our preachers are dying. When will the government wake up?” Sukhwinder asked.
(With inputs from Sravasti Dasgupta)